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India’s Political Climate Is Getting Tenser

To what degree are tolerance and freedom of expression endangered in India?

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Takeaways


  • To what degree are tolerance and freedom of expression endangered in India?
  • Indian PM Modi goes out of his way to portray himself as a force of modernization and progress.
  • Will right-wing BJP party's victory in Bihar State elections facilitate national harmony in India?

To what degree are tolerance and freedom of expression in India endangered? Not a day passes without reports in newspapers about protests of concerned Indians who worry about the state of human rights and the secular order in the world’s biggest democracy.

At the forefront of the protest movement are members of the country’s vast intellectual elite. Anxiety about a sneaking erosion of civil liberties is the unifying call of this movement, which thus far seems uncoordinated and without a leader.

In a gesture of public protest, more than 40 prominent Indian writers recently gave back their literary awards. In addition, in an open letter to the country’s president, a group of eminent scientists appealed for an end to “the spread of communal hatred and polarization.”

They also wrote that India today “is like a nuclear bomb close to criticality (which) can explode any time and drive the nation into utter chaos.”

The background to the apocalyptic talk is found in developments on the ground, which have stirred sections of India’s society.

Deadly attacks against members of religious and other minorities as well as critical intellectuals have been on the rise in recent months.

The lynching of Muslim farmer Mohammad Akhlaq by a mob of fanatic Hindus in a village not far away from New Delhi on the rumor that he had stored beef in his refrigerator (which turned out to be goat meat) shocked many and dominated headlines for weeks.

BJP at fault?

The political opposition and parts of the press explain the increase in violence with the brutalization of the political climate. They attribute this to Hindu nationalist circles within, or on the fringes of the governing BJP party.

The leadership of that party has, on more than one occasion, failed to distance itself and condemn religiously motivated acts of violence.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s opponents even suggest some sort of clandestine tolerance of the extremist outrage on the side of the governing party.

“It’s not that Modi wanted Mohammad Aklaq lynched – he just didn’t care that he was,” says Indian author Aatish Taseer.

Modi let some weeks pass before he commented publicly on the criminal act. When he finally said the episode was “sad and undesirable,” many Indians thought this was too little too late.

India’s culture clash?

India is a nation on the rise – and in transition. Rapid economic development with which the government seeks to overcome mass poverty has led to dramatic social changes that many conservative Indians consider unbearable.

Two world-views that are hardly reconcilable are clashing. It may be termed a cultural clash.

On the one side, there are proponents of a modern India who aspire to a secular, liberal multi-religious polity, based on India’s revolutionary constitution. They want to exploit the myriad chances of cultural openness in the context of globalization.

On the other side of the growing cultural divide is the camp of the conservative, openly reactionary Hindu nationalist movement, which dreams of a strong Hindu nation and has little sympathy for liberal civil liberties, multiculturalism and religious pluralism.

The latter camp is the ideological home of the government.

While Mr. Modi and his associates go out of their way to portray themselves as forces of modernization and progress, the nationalist past has caught up with them on more than one occasion.

“The Hindutva world view is opposed to the central idea enshrined in our Constitution that all Indian citizens, regardless of caste, gender, religion, ethnicity, language or culture, are absolutely equal and equally entitled to the fundamental rights of citizenship,” writes Indian author Annaya Vajpeyi.

She sees the Hindu Right pushing the country into a “phase of reaction and orthodoxy.”

The government’s response to all the attacks and allegations is that acts of communal violence and discrimination are not novel phenomena and also occurred before the BJP came to power.

Election time

The small number of neutral observers in an increasingly polarized domestic political environment in India point to the timing of the escalation of political disputes.

Currently, regional elections are taking place in the North Indian state of Bihar. These elections are a major political exercise, with no less than five phases spanning over several weeks.

While political observers disagree on many points, there is general agreement that the Bihar elections are the most important political event in India’s domestic political calendar this year.

The local polls have been magnified to provide a referendum on the rule of the prime minister, thus having political implications far beyond the state borders.

Polarization is a tried and tested instrument to mobilize voters in Indian elections. Mr. Modi’s BJP has time and again proven that it masters this political strategy better than most opponents. Once more, this tactic is in practice in the Bihar campaign.

The outcome may be positive for Mr. Modi and his partisan friends. It is certainly not beneficial for social cohesion and national harmony in India, as we can clearly witness these days.

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About Ronald Meinardus

Ronald Meinardus is the Regional Director, South Asia, of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) in New Delhi. [India]

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